In May, 11 students and two faculty members from the Bemidji School of Nursing, which includes the nursing programs at both Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College, spent two weeks delivering health care and health care education in Belize.
The students made the trip as part of a partnership with ProWorld, an international exchange organization that specializes in international leadership and sustainable development. Since it was founded in 1998, ProWorld has placed more than 6,000 participants in community-based projects in 14 countries.
Tami Such, an instructor of nursing at Northwest Tech, saw this as a unique opportunity to get students into an environment where they would be forced to use skills taught in a sterile classroom environment in a real-world situation.
“I definitely saw the opportunity to enhance clinical experiences,” she said. “We want them to be able to think outside the box and process health care in a different setting where you don’t have the luxuries we have available.
“We teach foundational cultural considerations, and certainly about being culturally sensitive, but this trip was about giving them opportunities to do that in a different way from what we can do locally,” she added. “We’re only as good as what we’re exposed to. Seeking out those opportunities to be able to apply what you’ve learned, I think it really improves what we do back home.”
The group stayed with host families and experienced all aspects of life in Belize during their tour. In addition to the health education and nursing practices that were the main goal of the expedition, the group helped rebuild a thatch-roof house and
“We learned that our way isn’t the only way; you have to bend when you are in someone else’s world,” said Tam Mahaffey, an adjunct instructor at BSU. “It’s an opportunity to do something that you may never get to do again in your life.”
The participating students spent an entire semester preparing for the trip, meeting numerous times to research Belize’s medical system, safety, the state of health care and immunizations in the country and to learn about the existing nursing profession. Still, despite the advance preparation, the students still had a difficult period of adjustment once they arrived in the country.
“The biggest surprise was the culture shock,” said Trina Yoder, who graduated from the Northwest Technical College practical nursing program in December. “Just how people lived; what they drove; what the roads were like. Even with the things they didn’t have, they were the happiest people I have ever seen. They were so content in life and didn’t have a care in the world.”
Yoder added that the infrastructure and facilities for nursing and medical care required a period of adjustment, also.
“The IV pole was a PVC pipe,” she said.
Atteberry said the group observed malnutrition as a prominent issue among the people, as was a lack of adequate dental care. The culture differences caused the group to place a great deal of emphasis on providing necessary care in a way that emphasized the importance of communication and ability to teach. Assessment skills were also put to the test, as students had to bridge cultural and language issues to resolve basic questions such as determining whether a patient was having her first baby or her 10th.
“Some of the basic hygiene tips were very easy things to teach,” Atteberry said. “They were so thankful when we were done. They would say things to us like ‘thank you, now I can be a better mom.’ It was so rewarding for me to hear.”
The group also prepared a series of education projects with guidance from Belize’s Ministry of Health that were taken to the country and distributed during the trip.
Setting the stage for a future in nursing
In addition to the invaluable educational and cultural experience, several of the students found that their time in Belize had played a role in the direction they were considering for their career in medicine.
“I had never thought I would want to be an OB nurse,” said Gabrielle Jacobson, a BSU nursing major from Upsala, Minn. “But after seeing what I saw down there, I am definitely considering it now.”
Yoder already has an offer to do similar work with a doctor in Guatemala, and several of the other students already are considering other opportunities to travel abroad and provide similar services again in the future.
Finding value in traditional practices
Though being trained under a framework firmly rooted in the tenants of modern medicine, the Belize trip helped this group of students recognize that there also is value in exploring the applications of more traditional treatments. For example, they explored applications of a number of plant-derived treatments which serve as the base ingredients for modern pharmaceuticals, albeit in highly refined and modified forms.
“They are in somewhat of a transitional period from native medicine to modern medicine, at least from what I saw,” said Andrea Raynbird, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada native who graduated from the BSU nursing program this spring. “There is somewhat of a tug-of-war going on between what they have practiced for years and a system of modern medicine like ours.”
She added that the Bemidji School of Nursing group discovered it was difficult to change people’s ways of thinking and this added to the challenge of delivering care for medical issues requiring modern treatment. However, in seeking that balance between traditional and modern, Raynbird found valuable parallels between the two systems and lessons that modern medicine would do well to adapt.
“Nursing is about prevention and lifestyle,” she said. “Too quickly in our health care system we don’t look at other options. We look for the quick fix instead of doing the work. It’s much easier to pop a pill every day.”
• Jeanine Gangeness, founding dean, Bemidji School of Nursing; (218) 755-3870
• Tami Such, nursing instructor, Northwest Technical College; (218) 333-6662
• Jen Atteberry, assistant professor of nursing, Bemidji State University; (218) 755-2529
• Tam Mahaffey, adjunct instructor, nursing, Bemidji State University
• ProWorld Volunteers